One source of Pecola’s debilitating sense of ugliness is her dark skin. In a society that prizes white skin, light skin, and “high-yellow” girls like Maureen Peal, finding beauty in oneself is a deep challenge. For Pecola, fighting the colorism of her community proves too great a task, and her mind fractures under the pressure. To better understand Pecola’s struggle, a firm grasp on the nuances of colorism is required, and to that end a brief overview of it is provided below.
If you try looking up the word “colorism” in a mainstream dictionary like Merriam Webster’s, it’s likely it won’t be listed, because technically colorism isn’t an official word. In her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, author and activist Alice Walker became the first person to use colorism in print. Walker defined colorism as prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color. Since slavery, Black Americans have demonstrated a preference for light skin, but this was an implicit, unspoken, but unquestioned phenomena. In 1983 Walker finally gave colorism a name and a voice, and “marked it as an evil that must be stopped in order for African Americans to progress as a people” (Tharps 2016). Since 1983, the definition of colorism has been expanded and refined to account for the sociopolitical and cultural meanings attached to different skin colors.
In the United States, colorism got its start in the system of racial hierarchy created by European colonialism. In this system, white people were privileged over black, and differences in skin color were used to justify the enslavement of non-white peoples. This developed into a social hierarchy where white people were at the top, black people were at the bottom, and your placement along the hierarchy granted you certain privileges, or gave you certain handicaps. Lighter-skinned black people often had a partial white heritage, and thus were seen as superior to darker-skinned black people. During slavery, lighter-skinned black slaves worked in the house, and were more likely to be educated than darker-skinned black slaves, which perpetuated the stereotype of light black Americans as intelligent, and dark black Americans as ignorant. This later led to more educational and economic opportunities for light-skinned black people, in addition to fostering division and resentment within the black community, all of which persists today.
Although officially the word "colorism" doesn’t exist, its impact on educational and economic opportunities and overall life outcomes has led researchers and scientists to formally and systematically track its existence. Their studies have shown extensive evidence of colorism in the areas of criminal justice, business, housing, health care, media, politics, and the economy in the United States and beyond. For example, a 2006 University of Georgia study found that employers of any race preferred light-skinned black male applicants to their dark-skinned counterparts, regardless of qualifications or skill level. In 2013 a group of researchers found that dark-skinned black females are three times more likely to be suspended in school than light-skinned black females. In criminal sentencing, medium to dark-skinned Black Americans typically receive sentences that are two to three years longer than the sentences of light-skinned Black Americans. And finally, when it comes to the area of beauty and pop culture, Black Americans who have lighter skin, lighter eyes, and more “white” features such as a small nose and thin lips are better received by the public and thus more likely to be hired by media producers (Woodward 2000). Sadly, this minuscule selection of studies and statistics doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface on the topic of discrimination based on skin hue.
Within the black community and even some black households, colorism also continues to be a looming specter. As professor Lori L. Tharps says in her 2016 article “The Difference Between Racism and Colorism,” “the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy in the outside world seeps into the household and becomes part of the implicit and explicit teachings of parenting.” This is tragically the case for the Breedloves, who allow society’s view of their dark skin to dictate their lives, resulting in their collective destruction.